Papua proposes 500,000 hectares for food estate: Minister

Papua proposes 500,000 hectares for food estate: Minister
The Jakarta Post, 13 September 2010

Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan said his ministry received a proposal to make use of 500,000 hectare areas for the 1.6-million-hectare food and energy estate projects planned in Merauke, Papua.

He said half of the proposed area could be planted directly since it was not in forested areas that have been allocated for other business aims.

“We are still assessing the remaining 250,000 hectares to ensure whether they are located in peatland or natural forest areas,” Zulkifli said recently.

The proposal limits the expansion of the food estate to only 500,000 hectares for at least the next five years as stipulated in the spatial planning law.

The forestry law says any conversions of forest areas into other purposes could only be done after approval by the House of Representatives.

The government’s team for spatial planning would examine proposals submitted by local administrations to change the status of forests.

“I estimate that the process to change the status [of 250,000 hectares of forest] in Merauke will be completed by the beginning of next year at the earliest,” he said.

Zulkifli denied reports that the Papua administration had demanded allocating 1.6 million hectares for integrated food and energy estate projects.

“Such an area could only be ready in the next five years if the administration changed the spatial planning,” he said.

The minister expressed doubts about investor interest in developing the food and energy estate projects in Merauke, citing the absence of infrastructure such as electricity and roads.

The Agriculture Ministry first floated the idea of setting up 1.6 million of hectares of food and energy estates in Merauke to boost the country’s food production.

The project has also been high on the agenda of the Agriculture Ministry this year.

However, environmental activists criticized the plan, voicing fears of massive forest loss in Papua, the only province with vast tracts of virgin forests.

To complicate matters, the government promised to impose a moratorium on new permits to operate in peatland and natural forests.

Eight million of the country’s remaining 22 million hectares of peatland are located in Papua.

An assessment by Greenomics Indonesia said only 300,000 hectares of production forest in Merauke could be converted for other purposes, including food estate projects.

It said that of the 4.7 million hectares of land in Merauke, 95 percent was still forested with some 3.42 million untouched.

The Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) said the planned food estate projects would remove indigenous people from traditional lands, potentially giving rise to conflict.

“The food and energy estate projects would not benefit Papuans but rather large companies,” Walhi chief campaigner Muhammad Teguh Surya told The Jakarta Post.

Walhi said 32 large oil palm and oil and gas companies had secured licenses to develop food and energy estate projects on 1.6 million hectares in Merauke.

Teguh said massive changes to the function of forests would also make Papua more vulnerable to ecological disasters that would worsen poverty in the easternmost province of the country.